On a hike Sunday on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake, one of our hikers stopped and took a long, sweeping look at the surrounding terrain. The trees — sycamores and oaks, a few beeches in this cove — were nearly spent of leaves, their work for the year carpeting the forest floor with golden leaves. The slanting early December sunlight and the cloudless blue sky made everything pop a bit more.
“It’s so beautiful out here,” she said. I was tickled to hear those words, words I’ve come to hear more often over the years as I expose more people to the joys of winter hiking.
Traditionally, most folks, even avid hikers, put their hiking gear in storage until the first spring wildflowers begin to poke through in March. “It’s too cold,” they protest. Or, too … brown.
Too cold? Well, that’s easy to deal with, with the right clothes. Especially with a good pair of gloves and a wool hat, which handle the lion’s share of warmth management on a winter hike. Learning to layer your clothing helps mitigate the cold, and knowing the right fabrics to wear does likewise.
But too brown? Brown is not necessarily a color appreciated for its nuance. But the next time you step out into the winter woods, take note of the leaf-covered forest floor, which ranges from a coppery brown, to a sand dune beige to an almost creamsicle orange. Together, these hues create a subtle melange, a colorway that is distinctly winter.
Those leaves on the ground mean the woods have dropped their summer mask. The sometimes claustrophobic feel of a summer forest gives way to terrain exposed, to a land with few secrets. That rustling you hear 50 yards off in summer is revealed in winter to be a darting squirrel. On a trail you’ve hiked a dozen times in warm weather you may be surprised to learn, come winter, passes the crumbling foundation of an old homestead.
There’s the amplified quiet. So quiet you hear a breeze rustle the distant tree tops minutes before it brushes your cheek. So quiet you can hear yourself think.
There’s the sky. Winter in these parts is known for its milky skies, a blue sky made faint by a prevailing thin layer of vapor. A murky sky, a sky that refuses to yield its intentions: Rain? Maybe. But probably not. A timeless sky that says, No rush; just enjoy.
And, of course, there’s the absence of other hikers. Folks, unlike you, who’ve yet to be winter enlightened. Having the trail to yourself: could winter offer a better gift?
When we head down the trail in spring and fall, it’s with great expectations. We want every wildflower to be in bloom, we want the the most brilliant fall foliage display ever. In winter, we have no such expectations.
Possibly the reason a winter’s day on the trail rarely disappoints.
5 quick tips for staying warm on the trail
Worried about getting cold? You shouldn’t be if you follow these 5 rules:
1. Use gloves and a hat to regulate body temperature.
Too warm, shed the hat. Too cold, put it back on. Same with gloves.
2. Wool socks.
Once your feet go, it’s over. Invest in a heavier pair of winter hiking socks to keep your toes toasty.
3. Dress in layers.
Keep a thin, longsleeve synthetic or wool layer close to your body, topped by a heavier fleece. A light rain jacket, mainly to block wind, makes a good third layer.
4. Start cool.
Most folks are bundled up at the trailhead. Before starting your hike, shed your outer layer and stick it in your pack. If you keep it on, you’ll get overheated within 5 minutes and work up a light sweat that will cool you down when you take a break.
5. Eat and drink.
Take water, take snacks. You burn calories hiking, you burn even more in winter as your body works to keep you warm. Don’t forget to fuel your furnace.
You can get a more comprehensive look at how to dress for the cold on the trail in this post, “Warm up to Winter Hiking with a Few Simple Tips”, at GetGoingNC.com.
Hike through the holidays
Need a little structure to keep you on the trail in the cold weather? The GetHiking! Hike Through the Holidays program offers hikes in December on Sunday afternoons, Tuesday evenings, Friday mornings and even a couple Wednesday afternoons. It’s also a good way to deal with the stress of the holidays. Learn more here.